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Mobility in 2020: Voters may face transit tax votes, Atlanta may reshape traffic flow

David Pendered
scooters

Editor’s Note: This is the final installment of four stories this week that look at topics likely to appear on devices and news platforms in metro Atlanta in 2020.

By David Pendered

Transit funding is poised to emerge in 2020 as a major discussion in Atlanta, DeKalb and Gwinnett counties. In addition, Atlanta is slated to try again to revamp traffic movement in the central business district, regulate e-scooters and possibly reduce the city speed limit to 25 mph – even as a push for transit on the Atlanta BeltLine remains in the mix.

scooters

Atlanta is considering new rules to regulate electric scooters, aiming for ways to improve safety for riders, vehicle drivers and pedestrians who occupy the public right-of-way. Credit: David Pendered

Atlanta city officials are likely to start mulling in public about whether to ask voters to extend the existing sales tax for transportation. The tax of 0.4 percent expires April 1, 2022, which suggests a referendum will be called for some date in 2021. The biggest local office on the November 2021 ballot is mayor; incumbent Keisha Lance Bottoms was elected in 2017. Atlanta already has called a March 24 referendum to ask voters to extend a 1 percent sales tax to pay for sewer improvements.

Gwinnett County officials are weighing the timing of another vote on entering an agreement with MARTA. Some civic leaders have suggested putting a transit referendum on the ballot in November. The biggest local office on that ballot is the open chair of Gwinnett’s Board of Commissioners; incumbent Charlotte Nash is not seeking reelection to the post she’s held since winning a special election in 2011.

DeKalb County officials are considering calling a transit sales tax referendum this year. DeKalb commissioners set the stage in July 2019 for a transit vote by adopting a Master Transit Plan. The biggest local office on the November ballot is the county’s chief executive officer; incumbent Michael Thurmond was elected in 2016.

These potential conversations are to follow the expected adoption this Spring of a 30-year Regional Transportation Plan. The plan outlines spending of an estimated $174 billion to improve mobility in metro Atlanta through 2050.

The Atlanta Regional Commission is expected to approve the RTP in February, followed by GRTA in March. The federal Department of Transportation also must approve the plan.

Even before the first signature has graced the RTP, advocates of transit along the BeltLine already are planning to seek to amend the plan to include BeltLine transit.

BeltLine Rail Now is eyeing proceeds of Atlanta’s potential sales tax referendum as a way to fund transit along the BeltLine. This amendment would be allowed if a funding source were attached to the project, according to the organization.

BeltLine Rail Now contends a transit system should be built in the BeltLine corridor, as was promised in the initial program. Credit: David Pendered (2016)

Members lobbied MARTA, Atlanta and the ARC to provide major funding for the BeltLine transit system in the RTP. They called for the city to fulfill the vision presented to the public in 2004 and 2005. The effort was not successful. Nonetheless, members contend that considerable public support remains for the BeltLine transit system that remains part of the city’s official commitment to building the BeltLine:

  • Invest Atlanta’s description of the project defines the BeltLine as – “a 22-mile loop of multi-use trails, modern streetcar, and parks….” Invest Atlanta is the city’s development arm that created the non-profit Atlanta BeltLine, Inc. to serve as its redevelopment agency for the BeltLine tax allocation district and redevelopment plan.
  • The Atlanta City Council adopted enabling legislation on Nov. 7, 2005 to establish the BeltLine TAD and redevelopment plan. The paper states that property taxes collected along the BeltLine are authorized for – “capital improvements related to transit;” and observes the BeltLine is a “complex, long-term project that involves, among other things, the development of parks trails and transit along a 22-mile corridor….”

Other major initiatives in Atlanta include:

Reducing the city speed limit to 25 mph

MARTA, ATL logo

MARTA buses bear the logo of the ATL as they transport riders around the region. Credit: Kelly Jordan

  • The Atlanta Bicycle Coalition is lobbying Atlanta to set the speed limit to 25 mph across the city. The ABC cites a myriad of reports that show lower speeds save lives. The lower speed limit is consistent with Vision Zero policy the mayor included in the Strategic Transportation Plan she released in November 2019.

Revising traffic patterns in the central business district

  • A proposal that was shelved in July 2019 intended to revamp traffic patterns in the CBD in order to make the area more pleasant for walkers and bicyclists. Among the proposals in the Downtown Atlanta Transportation Plan is one to convert a total of 6.7 miles of Downtown streets from one-way to two-way roads. The mayor halted the plan after widespread criticism of a plan that did not account for its impact on the convention industry: No one accounted for caravans of as many as 30 buses that travel together between the hotel district to the Georgia World Congress Center. The mayor called on the nascent city Transportation Department to review the plan as it is formed this year. The Atlanta Bicycle Coalition supports the plan and hosts a petition urging for the first step to be implemented, the conversion of a portion of Baker Street from one-way to two-way travel.

Electronic scooter enforcement

  • Atlanta’s independent auditor is slated to release this Spring a report on the city’s regulatory framework for e-scooters, compare it to other cities, and assess enforcement efforts. E-scooters have become a national regulatory challenge, with 38.5 million trips taken on shared e-scooters in 2018, according to a report by the National Association of City Transportation Officials. The city council paused its program to issue permits for smartphone-based e-scooters in August 2019, following two deaths in the city of scooter riders. Any regulations that emerge are expected to aim toward improved safety for riders, vehicle drivers and pedestrians who occupy the public

The series: Monday – Shaping the News in 2020: Predictions for journalism; Tuesday – Atlanta’s internal audits in 2020: Expect to be surprised; Wednesday – Water war to end in 2020: Supreme Court to issue ruling; Thursday – Mobility in 2020: Region’s long-range plan, Atlanta’s Vision Zero

 

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David Pendered
David Pendered

David Pendered, Managing Editor, is an Atlanta journalist with more than 30 years experience reporting on the region’s urban affairs, from Atlanta City Hall to the state Capitol. Since 2008, he has written for print and digital publications, and advised on media and governmental affairs. Previously, he spent more than 26 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and won awards for his coverage of schools and urban development. David graduated from North Carolina State University and was a Western Knight Center Fellow.

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